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Subdivision Application Subs Civility for Hostility and Harkens Questions of What's a True Ridgewood Home

Neighbors object to a proposal to demolish a historic home and replace it with two modern houses on the existing lot.

Close your eyes for a moment–when you think of Ridgewood houses, what do you see? According to the expert appraiser appointed by neighbors opposed to a modern subdivision around Walthery, it should be a Victorian home built around 1890.

"The age of McMansions is over," Joseph Medici said in response to testimony put forth by experts from developer Robert Jennee, who and erect two modern 3,200-plus square feet homes in its place.

What is character?

"This would be perfectly at home in Hawthorne, Wyckoff, Haledon . . ." Medici said. "Not in Ridgewood." He continued, "You must maintain the character of Ridgewood."

Central to the issue is what qualifies as a benefit to the neighborhood. Is it knocking down a building that's been in non-conformity to zoning regulations?, asked David Troast, the planner hired by Jennee.

Under a barrage of sharp questions from objector's attorney Harold Cook, Troast again maintained that knocking down what he called an "out-of-place" large home with two lots would be a better alternative than one monstrous house, something one neighbor took as a threat; there are no plans to knock down the exiting 3,170 square foot home and erect a 5,000 square foot behemoth but it would be permitted given the size of the overall lot.

Troast conceded, however, that there was once consideration to put three smaller houses on the half-acre lot. Neighbors visibly smirked–it's their contention two homes with minimal acreage is already a detriment. "Three?" one resident in the audience said in a murmur. In fact, neighbors contend, Jennee is trying to put over 6,000 square feet on the same lot–about 3,000 feet more than what's already there.

The surrounding homes in the area–mostly smaller Victorians or Colonials–have greater similarities to the original home than the modern, two story homes proposed, according to Medici and objector's real estate expert Francis X. Spizziri.

They're also significantly smaller in living area, which the objectors contend is the most important way to judge how a home fits within the context of the neighborhood although Troast balked at that notion.

Even if Jennee's design were amended to more closely resemble what the objector's contend is "Ridgewood character," the size of the proposed two homes "is an issue," according to Medici – they're double the living area than many neighboring homes, Medici said.

He testified in his opinion the two proposed homes would be assessed at a total of anywhere from $1.6 to $2.0 million, about double the current appraisal.

'Out of order exchange'

Salty words were exchanged between Troast and Cook with testimony masquerading as questions and snippy, sarcastic non-answers shot-put back at Cook. Eventually, Planning Board Attorney Gail Price snapped that things had "gotten out of hand" and both parties were being "disrespectful."

Later in the meeting, Chairman David Nicholson screamed after applicant's attorney Charles Collins and Medici battled back and forth beneath the low hum of gasps from as a small pocket of interested village residents and neighbors.

Though tension shook throughout the two-and-a-half hour meeting, things calmed and Troast and Cook finished the contentious cross examination. Cook unloaded a continuing point: how could taking an existing lot (25,000 square feet), dividing it in half, ripping down a piece of history and watching two "un-Ridgewood-like" large cookie-cutters in its place a benefit to the neighborhood?

Troast responded that about half of the other homes in the area (within 500 feet) were also not in compliance with what would now be zoning code, admitting that many of the non-conformities likely predated zoning ordinances. However, he said the proposed lot coverage was comparable to others in the surrounding area, as is building height and building coverage. Those are the important points, he said. In short, it's in proportion to what's there under those guidelines.

What if the planning board says no?

But, asked Planning Board Vice Chairman Albert Pucciarelli, "What if we say no [to the application] to this and the house continues to be in . . . I wouldn't say blighted condition but in a degraded condition, for the next 5, 7, 10 years?"

"People renovate these [older homes]. It comes down to price," Medici retorted, adding that it's possible Jennee or another prospective owner could leave it to degrade further and there are "no guarantees" the property is improved.

Pucciarelli also commented that in reality, few homes in Ridgewood are truly as old and architecturally significant as may have been presented, as most have been renovated over the years or moved entirely and are "imitations" of previous homes. In reality, he said, "very few houses in Ridgewood can claim true architectural veracity."

A home with history, a land use law apparently against subdivisions

Medici gave a Powerpoint presentation in which he contended there was inherent value in the formerly Barbara Lewis-owned home, which was the Gilbert and Sullivan Opera House for decades, one of artsy Ridgewood's theater treasures with rare features like chestnut wood, now extinct in North America.

He testified that at different parts during the 78-day listing period, the home was marketed as a fixer-upper but not a tear-down.

The appraiser concluded that renovating the property is the best course of action–something previous testimony said wasn't an option given the prohibitive cost although the home sold at half its appraised value at $385,000. He also read from Municipal Land Use Law code in which there are specific passages discouraging the knocking down of homes for subdivisions.

Troast has testified that there's "nothing unreasonable" about asking to take down a home "not in rhythm" with the neighborhood and replacing it with homes in better condition with proportionate area and building coverage. He said the benefits of new non-conformities in variances would outweigh the previous ones.

Members of the planning board independently remarked that at the end of the day, they'll be judging the application solely on the variances it seeks and not external factors like renovation possibilities.

The application will continue in April with Cook's final witness.

Kiko Arase March 02, 2011 at 07:47 PM
Thanks for such a thorough report out James. What's your take away on this one? If you were a Planning Board member, which way would you be leaning? I personally think there is too much overbuilding going on/proposed in the Village right now. Because this house is right on Ridgewood Ave at the entrance to the Village, I would have to say one nice house only. The Village needs to preserve its elite real estate status. On the southern side of Ridgewood Ave (opposite this home), all of those houses are large on properties similar to this one. Seems like that fits the character of the neighborhood.
James Kleimann March 02, 2011 at 08:42 PM
I'm going to cop out and stay neutral on this one but pose perhaps a bigger question to consider – the home was appraised at about $715,000 but sold for $385,000. I've spoken to some in real estate who have said it sounds like Jennee got quite a deal on that. I'll agree there. Here's the rub – check out other recent home sales and you're going to find the market value and the appraised value are often quite far apart. This doesn't mean taxes are going down, either and as logic would follow, there would be more appeals filed. So here's another question – how inflated are the assessed values on homes over that of the real market value? And what does THAT do to a neighborhood?
Danny March 02, 2011 at 09:07 PM
he got a decent deal. why people are pissed about that i dont understand. people are in business to make a profit, not lose money. i didnt see anyone else stepping up and buying the place....a ton of money needs to be put into it to either restore it, or tear down and develop. its a huge nightmare. and i dont think that assessment is off. but it doesnt take into account the state of the structure. the formula does not account for that. so sure, if the home was all fixed up and in great shape i dont think its inflated. just my opinion
James Kleimann March 02, 2011 at 10:24 PM
Fair point, Danny. I'm not sure I've heard anger regarding the sale; it sounds like some have instead said with the low sale price, the money could be put back into restoring the home instead of tearing down and building two new ones that would be dissimilar. I haven't heard anyone say this should be a charitable enterprise but testimony from the objector indicates they seem to believe Jennee could make money on this as a renovation while keeping history in tact. Who knows if that's true? As I wrote, the objector's appraiser said two homes could be worth upwards of $2 million, well over that of the one home. Financially, for Jennee, absolutely it makes more sense to go for two homes. I haven't been inside nor do I know the scope of what would be needed for renovations. It could totally be prohibitive in cost. Again, looking at recent home sales versus that of the assessment reveals that numerically, the assessments appear to be above market value across the board. That's a general statement. Certainly this home would be a special case. You're not likely to find many comps for an 1850 home with original chestnut wood, a half acre and close to 3,200 square feet corner lot but needing a good deal of maintenance. My own personal view is a 25,000 square foot corner lot in Ridgewood for $385,000 is a pretty good deal. Thanks for commenting, Danny.
Grant Symington March 02, 2011 at 11:01 PM
Danny, a few people have expressed anger about the price because they feel that an old lady was taken advantage of. The original price of $500k was contingent upon HER getting approval of the subdivision. When the application did not move through as quickly as (I guess) everyone anticipated, the seller and developer for whatever reason, renegotiated the price. Who knows who initiated the renegotiation but in the end, the price was $115K less than the "contingent" upon price. Obviously, the developer makes big money with the subdivision. In addition, the house was never marketed at the $385K selling price or even the $500k price which angers some people because they believe there would have been buyers willing to renovate or build one new home at this price. There's no arguing that the place would take big $$ to restore the home or that two homes would be more profitabe than one, but at the price point of $385K, he should be able to do something other than subdivide and build two homes and still take home a nice paycheck for him and his employees. Hell, he just flipped a property a block away that he purchased during the summer for $375K for $789K. and it hasn't got nearly the property of this one. So people are angry that he's still pushing for two large houses when there's appears to be no need for it except for perceived greed.
Ridgewood Mom March 04, 2011 at 01:51 AM
Good for Jennee. Bad for Ridgewood. Very simple.
Danny March 04, 2011 at 02:05 AM
why? this increases ridgewoods tax base, and fixes an eye sore. its not anywhere near downtown ridgewood, its on a damn high traffic road. if it was downtown, i would certainly be against this. but how does that in any way detriment ridgewoods image? i guess i just dont get it. how would fixing that place up "preserve" ridgewood. sure its historic. sure i think it would be cool if someone restored it. but it in no way takes anything away from the village. and if jennee got that deal, why didnt someone else step up and offer 385, or even a little more? im in no way connected to anything here, but i dont see why people are flipping out over it.
Grant Symington March 04, 2011 at 03:00 AM
Danny - Read my earlier comment. No one ever stepped up to buy it at $385K because it was never offered at that price nor the $500K that Jennee originally agreed to pay for the propery. The only price it was ever listed at was $599K and yes, someone offered near that price but backed out when they got the engineering report. Many people would have jumped to buy it at this price likely including the couple who lived down the road and were under contract at $575K. And, yes, it does increase the tax base BUT that would most likely be negated by cost of educating the children who would be living there. Right now, the only people buying in Ridgewood are families with young kids Who is going to buy 4200 sq ft house with 4 bedrooms and 3 bathroom? A family with several kids (x2). Do the math. Each house gets taxed at $25k or a total of $50K (remember there's barely any propery value to tax 'cause they've subdivided). And only 85% of that $50K goes to the school budget so that $42.5K . There's 4 - 6 kids living in thes new houses and the cost of educating each kid is $14k/year. So the cost of educating 5 kids = $70K/year but the Village is only collecting $42.5K in school taxes for a net loss of .............. $27.5K/year. And we educate each kid for 13 years maybe. That's about $360K in 2011 dollars.
Danny March 04, 2011 at 03:17 AM
xmy whole point....if jennee bought at 385k, someone else could have. its not rocket science. nobody else stepped up to the plate and FOLLOWED THROUGH. if whoever offered near 599k had made a 385k offer, and held, they could have it too. if nobody bought it, then thats not an issue. i also paid significantly under the asking price. does that mean im terrible too? also, you are grossly extrapolating. i bought my house here in 2007, and i have no kids. 4-6 kids? really? thats nowhere near even the average. id definitely rather have 2 nice looking homes than what is there currently. this is america. if someone buys that place, and wants to change it, so what? if we kept everything the same, wed go nowhere. not to mention my house would still be farm land. the house is nowhere near downtown. let him do what he wants. if you and all these other people feel so strongly, give jennee 599k and restore it. these are just my opinions, of course. another thing that makes america great.
Kiko Arase March 04, 2011 at 03:54 AM
I agree that the house, in its present state is an eyesore. I think that house should be renovated (starting with the exterior) but if not, it should be torn down and ONLY one house but up in it's place. What's really important is that the property not be subdivided. Restoration/single home . . . either alternative perserves the character of our Village. We have very nice homes on large properties. That's what everyone is trying to protect. Large houses with underground garages on small properties isn't what I would want in my neighborhood. Why would any want them in their is beyond me. Move to southern Bergen County if you like this type of thing. And, as pointed out in an earlier post, there's no financial benefit to the Village form these subdivisions. The Village loses and the neighbors lose. No winners here except for the developers. And really, isn't this about granting, as James says, a slew of variances just to allow a develop to chisel in a two big houses on undersized lots. The code is the code and the Master Plan discourages this type of development. The Planning Board needs to judge the proposal on these guidances. It just seems to me that this should be denied as there isn't enough land to make two separate lots that meet code. Simple.
madmax March 04, 2011 at 04:22 AM
No one could have brought it at $385K. The list price on the house was $599k when the developer made an offer of $500k that was accepted by the seller. IT WENT UNDER CONTRACT AT $500K. IT WAS REMOVED FROM THE MARKET AT $500K AND NEVER WENT BACK ON THE MARKET. How does someone offer $385K on a house that is already under contract for $500K and that is in the process of going through subdivision approval? Please, explain to me how that works. There is no gross extrapolation. The poster used 5 kids in two big houses (read carefully) That's 2.5 kids per house; the american average and probably below the Ridgewood avg (about 33% of the Villages population is under 18). And the $14K per pupil number may be conservative. And maybe I'm dense but could you also explain what the proximity to downtown has to do with anything? It's okay to degrade neighborhoods through subdivision as long as it's outside of downtown? It's on the main street leading into town; that particular parcel is on the first that you see when you come into Ridgewood from the GSP or Rt 17. It speaks to who we are as a community and what we want our communtiy to be. Do we want to be McMansionville? I would also think this is a great opportunity for the developer to showcase the quality of his work. And no one objects to the place being changed, just subdivided. This is America and people are allowed to object to things that don't meet codes or Master Plans. In fact, they should


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